Tag Archives: Istanbul

Hot Air Ballooning in Cappadocia

If you research Peru you will be presented with glorious photographs of Machu Picchu. If you research Cambodia (or Vietnam!?) you will see Angkor Wat. Italy – The Colosseum. Thailand – Beaches. And when I started to research Turkey I was continually presented with a stunningly unusual landscape complete with various hot air balloons. Cappadocia, as it transpired, is one of the poster boys of Turkey.

I do tend to be taken in by the stunning headline images to be honest, so Cappadocia became part of, and the centrepiece to my trip to Turkey.

Getting to Cappadocia

Getting to Cappadocia is easy, and easier than you might expect given that it sits right in the middle of a country that seems to be more about the coastline than anything else. I flew from Istanbul to Kayseri Airport which was easy and cheap. Turkey has a good budget airline in the form of Pegasus Air as well as an excellent national carrier – Turkish Airlines. I paid around GBP£50 return for the flight with Pegasus and this seems to be their standard fare.

Transfers from the airport into the region are easily arranged and reasonable too. I arranged mine through my hotel in Goreme.

Goreme – A Great Town

Goreme itself seemed to me to be the perfect place to stay in the region. The town is delightful, some of the hotels are built within the otherworldly rock formations and many of the main attractions are close by.

Goreme High Street

Hot air ballooning was a new activity for me. Being a little uneasy with heights I decided to do some research and settled upon Butterfly Balloons – one of at least 25 in the region. I stopped my research short of the disasters which unfortunately do happen from time to time in ballooning, all around the world and occasionally at Cappadocia. Butterfly seemed to get great reviews and was recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook though.

Before the Flight

The logistical aspect of the build up to the flight was slick – as you would expect as they do this twice a day almost every day. I was picked up very early from my hotel and driven to their main offices. Here they provided breakfast to the 50 or so passengers (don’t worry, they have more than one balloon!) before we were split into groups. Rather inexplicably I was placed with 14 Chinese people, of which only a couple spoke English. Not that this bothered me but looking at the other groups Butterfly were clearly trying to group people together with a system of some sort. For the record, I am rarely mistaken for a Chinese person.

Our balloon being readied

Then we were bussed out into the middle of nowhere where our balloon was waiting. Once it was ready we were loaded into the basket, given a short safety talk by our pilot and took off.

The Flight

I won’t tell you about the flight, as photos do a better job. Suffice to say though that it was a really special experience and the gradually rising sun helps to show off the astounding geological formations of the area to perfection.

Take off - note the number of other balloons


Landing was a different matter though. Our pilot, who was clearly talented and instilled great confidence throughout, had told us that we were very lucky. The winds were carrying us along at a good pace and as a result we were seeing a lot more than most. Which is good. Until landing time approached.

As we descended we were asked to take up landing positions – which is to be crouched down in the basket and holding on tightly to the handles. From this position, despite my height I could see nothing.

The pilot’s calls for us to brace ourselves became a little more urgent and then we hit the ground hard. We all whooped in delight, as if we were on a rollercoaster, but then the balloon crashed down again, this time much harder. The laughing and cheering turned to screams.

The third time the balloon hit the ground it was pulled over by around 45 degrees and was then dragged along. The basket filled with dust and vegetation. At this point I could still see nothing, but I later learned that the ground crew had all thrown themselves on to the basket to try and cease its undignified journey through the olive trees and rocks.

Eventually we did stop, on our side, with the weighty gas cannisters within the basket thankfully remaining in place above my head.

After the crash landing

The landing was laughed off by the crew, and in all honesty I enjoy a little drama. But when I went for a stroll I noticed that had we been dragged a little further the edge of a deep ravine awaited.


So are balloon flights in Cappadocia safe? I’m not entirely sure. Certainly Butterfly balloons are a professional outfit, with good equipment and excellent staff. But I am inclined to think that the sheer number of balloons in the air at once is the most likely cause of accidents. Our pilot had a walkie talkie and though I couldn’t understand what was being said I am pretty sure he was speaking with the other Butterfly balloons, Probably looking out for each other, letting each other know what was above and below the balloons, in the huge blind spots.

My concern would be that single balloon or cut price operators may not apply the same level of caution. I don’t think hot air balloon flights are something to choose solely in the basis of price.

As for the landing, this was caused by the strength of the wind on the day. I suspect that in many countries that amount of wind would put paid to balloon flights for the day. Not so in Cappadocia where the balloon flights are a huge money spinner.

Balloon flights, like many of the best activities, carry an element of risk. Based on my experience in Cappadocia, it is a risk worth taking. So my advice would be that you should do your research and be wary of the cheaper balloon companies.

How about you?

Have you been to Cappadocia? What did you make of the balloon flight?  Let me know, either in the comments or on Facebook.


Maya’s Corner Cafe – Istanbul – Tasty, cheap and well placed for tourists

When I travel I often get caught out needing something quick to eat. Whilst I am amongst the tourist attractions I find that cafes and restaurants will charge a premium due to their locality to the areas heaviest with tourists. Putting myself into this situation due to a lack of research and preparedness is one of things I berate myself over the most. At lunch time I just want a quick and cheap snack. Not a sit down meal with obligatory bread and the lure of a beer and an ice cream.

So to stumble upon a top quality and cheap place to eat only 3 minutes walk from Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was a stroke of luck.

Maya’s Corner Cafe is a very small hole in the wall type eatery which offers a small selection of healthy chicken doner wraps and salads. At the time I visited there was just one table for two outside which was taken, but I was invited to sit inside. This enabled me to watch closely as my Chicken Doner Wrap was lovingly but swiftly prepared. My travel partner had the same wrap but with roasted vegetables added. Both were delicious, though I would say that the wrap with the vegetables was better.

Also on offer are salads, a veggie wrap, fresh orange juice and teas and coffees. All at a very reasonably price and but a short stroll from Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque.

Maya’s Corner Cafe is located at Alemdar Mahallesi, Yerebatan Caddesi, No 25. Lunch for two cost around 20 Turkish Lira, which is roughly UK£5.50 or US$9.00.

SuB Hotel – Istanbul

That first journey when you arrive in a country is usually the toughest. Finding an ATM, getting to grips with the local public transport, juggling a map and a bag whilst searching for a hotel. Add to that a level of heat somewhat higher than this Brit usually has to contend with and you have yourself a challenge.

So when I burst through the doors of the unassuming SuB Hotel in the Karakoy district of Istanbul, I was in need of a cold drink and a sit down. The guy at the reception desk clearly knows his stuff though, as he showed me straight to a seat and offered me refreshment.

Three days later it had become clear to me that SuB is a hotel that recognises the importance of excellent customer service. The staff were all very welcoming and helpful without stepping over that unseen line were helpfulness becomes annoying. That wonderful welcome was merely an indication of what would follow.

The hotel itself is a little unusual. Anybody who likes a formal, modern, and dare I say stuffy hotel experience may well find SuB to be not to entirely to their tastes. The hotel has been designed with a particular look in mind and I feel that what I am about to say needs to done carefully….

“SuB has some attributes that seem to have more in common with a hostel. But in a good way.”

The reception area has a selection of used books for example. And the walls around reception are adorned with some interesting and  “opinionated” art which compliments the attractive exposed brickwork. The cafe area next to reception has a charmingly hap hazard blackboard explaining the food options. Relaxing chilled music plays gently in the background at all times creating a wonderful atmosphere. These are all plus points. I loved sitting in the cafe area, tapping my toe to the superb tunes whilst I planned my daily adventures.

The rooms, mine was spotlessly clean by the way, are also a little unlike your average hotel room. My bed had a metal head board painted in bright red. The door to the bathroom was also made of heavy riveted metal. Neither of which was an issue, and some three weeks later I remember this clearly, which can only be a good thing.

The Star of the Show

The star of the show though, bettering even the superb staff, was the excellent breakfast. Every morning a large buffet of cheeses, breads, meats, jams, biscuits and more is crammed onto a large table. Eggs are cooked to order and the chef even brought us out his own special creation. On day one we had a delicious panna cotta and on our third morning we were offered a rice pudding which was a challenger to my mother’s. There is a culinary genius hidden in the SuB kitchen I think. And if you stay, be sure to try the home made hazelnut spread. It is wonderful.

Breakfast at SuB

The hotel is located in a great area. It is only a 10 minute stroll from the Karakoy metro stop which takes you quickly across the Golden Horn to the major attractions. Close by is also the interesting Tunel train, a short funicular line which climbs the steep hill up to the shopping street of Istiklal Cad and Taksim Square. Karakoy itself has a great selection of small restaurants, some overlooking the Bosphurus Straight. These are no more than 5 minutes walk from SuB.

The Price

I paid just under 100 Euros per night for a double room, which when compared to other hotels in Istanbul seems about right.

Competition seems strong in Istanbul so I don’t doubt there are better hotels in this price bracket. But if you are a semi retired backpacker like me, with a love of relaxing music and great food, SuB is probably the place for you.

Their website

Location on Google Maps

My Explorations in Istanbul
click here

How I explored Istanbul in 1 Day

No city can realistically be explored in 1 day, not least a city as vast and historic as Istanbul. But I love a challenge, so with only one full day to spare I gave it shot.

1. Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

This huge and imposing building, which dominates the skyline as you cross the Golden Horn, was originally built as a Byzantine church in AD537. Then it was a mosque when Constantinople became the capital of the Ottoman empire. But in the 1930’s the Turkish Government re-opened it as a museum.

The scale of the building becomes truly apparent once you enter the museum. The main dome is 55 metres high and there is so much open space between the ground and the roof that a haze of dust hangs in the air, giving a mystical feel to the place.

The decorations seem to be mostly Christian, but in stark contrast four huge black and gold medallions are hung high up. They bear some beautiful gold Ottoman calligraphy.

Inside Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The best views can be had from the first floor, accessed by a fantastic spiralling walkway. Windows on the first floor also enable great views out towards the Blue Mosque. It is worth seeking these windows out.

Access costs 30 Turkish Lira, which is around UK£8. It is open every day except Monday. Be sure to look out of the windows. Most people seemed to miss the impressive views that they afford.

2. The Blue Mosque

An easy walk across the park from the Sophia brings you to the equally striking Blue Mosque.  Be sure to turn around and get a proper look back at Hagia Sophia once you reach the mosque.

The exterior of the Blue Mosque is quite something. The size of the building becomes apparent as you reach the base and look up.

Sadly at the moment I reached the Mosque the call to prayer started. My awful planning showing itself once again. I was assured by the tour guides outside that the interior is an awesome spectacle. I am sure it is, but I will have to come back next time to see for myself.

Access is free though, and I was told that the mosque offers clothing to tourists not dressed suitably.

3. The Grand Bazaar

This is something I was really looking forward to. I hoped it would rival the crazy, confusing and exciting souks of Morocco.

In fact the Grand Bazaar is far more organised and sedate. It is a rather pleasant shopping experience, with areas specifically for gold, handbags, belly dancing costumes and the like.

The Grand Bazaar

Exploring is easy and the goods on offer are more than enough to keep a souvenir hunter busy for hours. I didn’t need any souvenirs though so after an hour I moved on..

4. The Spice Market

Now this was an experience. The Spice Market was crowded and loud, with the pungent smell of spices in the air. The sellers work hard to draw customers into the shops, handing out free samples of Turkish Delight as they delivered their smooth sales pitch.

The Turkish Delight, offered in every colour and shape imaginable, makes a trip here worth it. I left with a box to devour later.

Turkish Delight at the Istanbul Spice Market

5.The Boshpurus

Istanbul is dominated by the Bosphurus, which divides the European and Asian parts of the city and is one the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The Spice Market is right at the end of the Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn at Eminönü, and here a great number of tour boats and ferries dock.

The tours, venturing in all directions, take 2 to 3 hours and are priced from 20 Turkish Lira (UK£5.50).

As I was trying to cram as much into the day as possible I opted to take the passenger ferry to Üsküdar instead, which is over on the Asian part of the city.

The views were great from the top deck, and if you can’t spare 2 hours for a tour this makes perfect sense.

The View from The Bosphurus

Üsküdar seemed a little unremarkable, so I stayed for a Turkish coffee and then boarded the ferry back to Eminönü. I sat on the other side to get a different view.

The journey cost 4 Turkish Lira each way. Payment is made with some metal tokens, available from the slightly confusing machines outside the ferry terminal. Luckily there always seems to a helpful official close by in Istanbul.

If you too are short of time you should consider the ferry trip. There are various destinations and the views really are splendid.

7. Tünel

I love finding slightly unusual things to do and I spotted this on a map I was carrying around with me.

By this point in my self guided tour the sun was beginning to set and I was determined to eat in the Galatasary area, which is high up above the Golden Horn. I crossed the Galata Bridge, trying a fish sandwich (balik ekmek) on the way, and then I sought out the Tünel funicular railway.

Tunel in Istanbu;

This short service saves a rather tiring walk up the hill. It is the only funicular railway I have ever seen that is underground, and in fact this is the second oldest underground railway in the world. It was built in 1875, 12 years after the London Underground was completed.

It only takes a couple of minutes to reach the top station, but the tunnel is well lit so I could see that it was brick lined. I guess I am a bit of an engineering geek and I found this a really interesting experience. So much so that when I ventured back into the tunnel for a photograph a local chap became concerned for my safety.

The  Tünel costs 4 Turkish Lira per journey, a small price to pay to save your energy for…

8. Istiklal Street

After visiting this absolutely brilliant and very long pedestrianised street I can say with great confidence that Istanbul has one hell of a night-life.

The road starts close to the Tünel and leads all the way to Taksim Square. As I walked I encountered street performers, happy couples, excitable kids and endless restaurants and snacks that made my mouth water. The street has a great buzz in the evening.

The side streets and alleyways that lead away from Istiklal street are quieter but just as interesting. I saw endless bars and music clubs as well as cheaper restaurants.

I can not speak for any other evening destinations in Istanbul, but I am pretty sure that Istiklal Street would not disappoint.

What I Missed

Well, that wasn’t a bad effort for one day. Though I did miss the Topkapi Palace – but I managed to visit the morning after before my flight.

I also think the longer Bosphurus Cruises would be worth trying.

And I wish I had managed to get inside the Blue Mosque.

What Would You Have Done Differently?

I admit to not liking planning, so I always miss something great. Let me know what your favourite Istanbul sites are and tell me where I went wrong…